Singer, songwriter and producer Jack Garratt is only 24, yet his debut album Phase still draws on a decade’s experience in the music business.
As someone who has grown up making music on a laptop, Jack Garratt admits that the professional studio environment scares him. The 24-year-old, Buckinghamshire-born winner of the 2016 Brits Critics’ Choice Award largely created his debut album Phase using a MacBook and Logic, and so stepping into a series of recording facilities to complete it proved intimidating.
“Professional studios still really freak me out,” he laughs. “It’s weird because they’re designed not to, and I think that’s why they do. I’m very lucky to live in an age where I’ve at least attempted to hone my craft on my laptop. Technology is incredible for that reason. So when I then go into a professional studio, there is an element of it which is very much, y’know, ‘OK, so what are you worth?’ And it’s not like anyone in the studio means for that to happen. I think it’s just me. I put that kind of pressure on myself.”
Garratt has built his reputation upon his soulful electronic R&B, and through his octopus-limbed solo live performances where he plays guitar, keyboards and drum pads, often at the same time. Upon its release in February of this year, Phase reached number three in the UK album chart. But Garratt’s hasn’t been a painless rise; his story involves teenage promise, followed by troubling doubt and an expensively scrapped album. A self-confessed solitary and “fat” school kid who spent hours at home learning how to play drums on a Casio keyboard and guitar while watching videos of Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was clear to everyone around him that Jack Garratt was destined to be a musician. At 14, in 2005, he failed to be selected for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, but remained determined to pursue his passions, developing a style that was rooted around acoustic blues and his impressively dextrous fretboard skills.
At 18, as a present, he was given two hours in Abbey Road Studio One to record his songs, which is where his fear of recording studios first stirred within him. “It was just me and my acoustic guitar,” he remembers. “They just set up the soundproofed walls and they stuck me in front of a mic and I recorded a few songs. Every orchestra conductor who’d stood in that room, every session musician that’d been on these incredible records made there: I could feel all of them breathing down the back of my neck, going ‘What have you got?’ Really strange. But that’s kind of the magic of recording studios.”
Jack Garratt was always much more comfortable on stage. Performing solo at a series of pub gigs, his talents were spotted by Andrew McCrorie-Shand (composer of children’s TV themes for programmes like Teletubbies and Rosie And Jim) who took it upon himself to fund the recording of an album by the young singer. Sessions were duly booked for Yellow Fish Studios near Brighton, overseen by Ian Caple (Kate Bush, Tricky, Ryan Adams).
“It was full production and I played everything on it,” Garratt explains. “I was really young and was kind of trying to produce when I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing, and trying to deal with an unbelievably talented engineer who’d worked on fantastic records. Ian was great and so nurturing and took me under his wing with the whole process. I was putting down piano parts and then trying to put bass parts underneath and then sitting down at the drum kit and then playing guitar over the top of it and then doing the vocal.
“It was then Andrew’s idea to go, ‘Cool, OK, I think if we’re really gonna do it, let’s go whole hog.’ So we went to Angel Studios in Islington and we recorded a string orchestra there, which was incredible. Then in the same day we had a double bassist come down for an uptempo bluesy swing number I did. Then we had a small horn section come in to fill out the missing pieces in a couple of the tracks.”
However, once the album, entitled Nickel And Dime, was mixed and completed, there was one glaring problem: Garratt didn’t like it. “When I think back on it, I was so happy to be in that environment,” he says, “but I wasn’t doing anything original. I listened back to it, and if I’m honest with myself, it just sounded like any other vanilla acoustic singer-songwriter that was trying to do something back in the late ’00s. I was happy to have achieved something, but I remember just thinking I could’ve done more with it.”
Obviously, the people around Garratt weren’t exactly happy to receive the news that he was binning the just-completed and expensive-to-make album. “I hold that guilt every day,” he admits. “It was a difficult decision to have to make. But I was thinking, I’ve heard these songs before by other people who aren’t me. I’ve heard this production before by other people who aren’t me. I’ve heard this album a thousand times and it’s never been good. It’s never been what I’ve liked as a fan of music, so why have I made it?”
The decision provoked a crisis for Garratt. “I’d dropped out of uni,” he says. “I was going through this big transition and I was 20 and freaking out.” Nevertheless, undaunted, he continued gigging and was spotted once again, this time by his now-manager Sam Faulkner. Inspired by the moody electronic sounds of James Blake and American trip-hop revivalist Son Lux, Garratt decided to delve deeper into laptop recording, changing his style in the process.
“I mean, I’d been working on a laptop for years,” he says. “I’m using the same version of Logic — 9 — I haven’t upgraded. I’m quick on it and speed is really important to me. The Nickel And Dime thing, I was in safe hands, but it was slow. I don’t like things taking a long time because if I have an idea, I need to get it down now. I got myself a small two-in two-out M-Audio Firewire audio interface and that was my everything, and I got the [M-Audio] Prokeys 88 which was at the time the lightest stage piano/MIDI keyboard available on the market.
“After I got those I was making music on the laptop and trying new ideas and just doing fun things that I never really took seriously. I made these instrumentals and seven-and-a-half-minute-long jokey funk electronic pieces, all inspired by early Daft Punk records. I took more inspiration from that than I did from any of the serious songs that I was writing.”
At the same time, coming from a live playing background, Garratt was keen to loosen up the rigidity of electronic music when it came to his own recordings. “It took me a long time to get into electronic music,” he states, “only because I couldn’t find any of it that made sense to me. A lot of it just seemed to be quantised kick drums and unnecessary vocal effects and just, like, lack of inspiration posing as genius creation. James Blake and Son Lux orchestrate their music... that’s what got to me.”
The first track to emerge after Garratt changed direction was the piano-driven, electronically atmospheric ‘I Couldn’t Want You Anyway’, which the musician uploaded to SoundCloud. “I’d gone, OK, I’ve got this song that I know is following the kind of structure of a Stevie Wonder pop song. How do I produce it in a way that is more like the electronic music that I’m listening to right now? It was just a challenge.”
Soon the SoundCloud plays of the song — and the others that Garratt quickly completed — were racking up. Given a development deal with Turn First management, he set up a basic studio, which he called Limbo, in Kensal Green, North West London. “It was literally just a small two-car garage size,” he explains. “There was a motorcycle repair shop next to us. The guy that I took the lease off of wanted to store some of his stuff there for a little while, and one of the things he left behind was a pair of Focal Twins. By that time I had a [Focusrite] Saffire Pro 40 audio interface and a DI unit, both drilled into a hardcase. And an upright piano, which belonged to James Flannigan, a producer friend of mine, which I used for things like ‘Water’ and ‘The Love You’re Given’.”
Budgetary constraints meant that Garratt only had one microphone at his disposal: the all-purpose Shure SM7B. “If it’s good enough for Quincy Jones, it’s good enough for me,” he laughs. “It’s a great mic. Everything was recorded on an SM7: all the pianos, all the guitars, all the vocals, all the percussion.”
It was at this point that Garratt signed to Island, releasing two EPs, Remnants (2014) and Synesthesiac (2015), both self-produced, with the latter mixed at Mystery Street Studios in Chicago. “I had to ask to produce Remnants,” he says, “because people didn’t see me as a producer. Everyone went, ‘OK, cool, see if you can.’ And I did it and no one said no, so I just kept going. The Synesthesiac EP was me really trying to knuckle down as a producer. So when the album came around, I had to keep making sure I was going up another level and bettering myself and challenging myself.”
Not that Jack Garratt was a lone ranger during the making of Phase. Along with engineer Brett Cox (Alt-J, Frightened Rabbit), he entered Ravenscourt Studios in Shepherd’s Bush for two weeks of polishing up his laptop recordings. “Finalising and beautifying, I guess,” says the singer. “Or, actually, uglifying in some places. Brett is a really good friend of mine. Tonally, we really connected and I brought him in and we spent two weeks just digging and changing everything at Ravenscourt. We had the room upstairs which is small and has an upright piano in it.”
One of the songs spontaneously recorded in this environment was ‘My House Is Your Home’, a stripped live piano/vocal track captured using only the SM7B and an iPhone. “A lot of the room recordings that I do, I use an iPhone as my room mic. I close-mic with an SM7 and then just stick an iPhone in the corner of the room. ’Cause the compressors on iPhones are awful and they sound disgusting... and it really works.
“That was about capturing the performance, capturing the moment. You need to feel like you’re in the room for that song to really hit. Ravenscourt is a beautiful studio. It’s easily I think my favourite studio I’ve been in, in London. I love the feeling of it there.”
Elsewhere, an earlier writing and producing session with Bastian Langebaek aka Carassius Gold at Medley Studios in Copenhagen resulted in the slinky-grooving single ‘Worry’, and a collaboration with Kanye West’s right-hand man Anthony Kilhoffer at Conway Studios in Hollywood yielded the cut-up rave pop of ‘Far Cry’.
“Conway was the most indulgent I’ve ever been in a studio environment,” says Garratt. “I love restrictions. Restrictions are what made Phase — not having everything I needed at the time when I needed it and instead going, ‘OK cool, so what do I do?’ When we were at Conway, our point was to give me everything I could possibly need, just to see. It was a really expensive experiment and it was really important that I did it. ‘Far Cry’ is the only one we used and even then I took everything that we’d recorded and reworked and rejigged it in London. I don’t know what it needed, but it just wasn’t the right fit.”
Garratt clearly knows precisely what he wants and doesn’t want in his recordings. He admits that he often finds himself hunched over his laptop, obsessing and minutely shifting around parts within Logic to get exactly the feel he’s after.
“I don’t usually quantise but I move stuff,” he says. “I do the take, play it in live with a sound that I’ve built that I’m happy with, and in that moment when I’m recording it, I’m thinking about the tone and that’s about it. Does the tone sit with everything that’s happening around it? Then once I’m listening back to it later, my ears will pick up on the rhythm of it. Then I’ll go in and just move minute details, tiny little things, but they make the world of difference. Y’know, it’s that two millisecond space before the beat or after the beat, and that changes the entire mood of that bar. Those are the details that I obsess over.”
For drum programming, Garratt tends to use Kontakt to access various libraries, including Native Instruments’ Abbey Road collections. “But I’ve never just gone onto a factory setting and been happy with it,” he points out. “My channel strip organisation is awful because I don’t know the right way to organise it all. I’ll just keep adding stuff until it sounds right. Usually what I do is I take one of the Abbey Road vintage kits and I’ll detune the snare so it’s a little bit fatter. I’ve been really getting into the Goodhertz plug-ins. They’ve got one compressor that they’ve done with a [Michigan progressive funk] band called Vulfpeck and it’s one of the nicest-sounding compressors I’ve ever used.
“So I’ll whack a compressor on it, then add maybe a couple of distortions, and then probably just stick a Waves SSL channel over the top of the whole thing and twiddle about with that until it sounds right in my head. The numbers would probably make people throw up [laughs] but it sounds right to me.”
When it comes to electronic bass or other synthesizer parts, Garratt generally loads up one of the Arturia soft synths. “But again, I take digital instruments and I do everything I can until they feel like they’re supposed to,” he stresses. “The Arturia package is incredible. But we ended up using a real Juno on ‘Far Cry’ and ‘Weathered’ because for some reason it wasn’t working the way that I usually do it and it made sense to try and get the real thing on it.
“But the great thing about those soft synths is the way that they’re designed. The interface of them is as real-life as it could possibly be, meaning that when I then transitioned onto the real thing, I could jump up onto the Juno and just do the stuff that needed to be done to get the right sound. I’m actively starting to try and find the real things — I’ve just got myself a Moog Voyager. So the soft synths are there and I know how to use them, but if it doesn’t work in that moment, I can resort to a real-life analogue waveform and produce it myself.”
The moody late-night groove of ‘The Love You’re Given’ incorporates the fashionable pumping side-chain compression effect on the throbbing bass track. “Carassius Gold taught me how to do it, and I try not to use it on absolutely everything,” laughs Garratt. “I try and use it with interesting rhythms. If I’m gonna do it on an interesting kick rhythm, I’m gonna try at least not to quantise that rhythm and grid it and lock it in so it’s perfect. I’m gonna do it so it’s real and it is out of time, so the synths are ducking in this kind of weird way. ‘The Love You’re Given’ is exactly that — it ducks with the kick and the pattern isn’t regular.”
‘The Love You’re Given’ is also built around a haunting female vocal sample which is in fact a snippet of Rolling Stones backing singer Lisa Fischer lifted from the soundtrack of 2013 documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom. “I recorded it on my iPhone through a pair of Focal Twins,” says Garratt. “That was a few days of, ‘Oh, this sample could be really fun, and oh, I’ve got a song now.’ Deservedly, she has a writing credit, ’cause the song would not exist without that sample, without her voice.”
Most of the finished tracks came from Garratt’s sessions with Brett Cox, but for ‘Weathered’ and ‘Surprise Yourself’, Island Records matched the musician up with Mike Spencer (Labrinth, Years & Years) for sessions at his The Lark’s Tongue Studio in Buckinghamshire.
“Originally he was going to mix the whole album,” Garratt says, “and me and him had a chat about it and we decided that that didn’t make sense. It made sense to bring him in and co-produce the songs which needed the tools that he could bring. ‘Surprise Yourself’ and ‘Weathered’ are two incredibly epic songs, and even before Mike came in, they had this epicness to them. I wanted to present them as these... the way that a boat is pulled by the waves of a stormy sea, it’s that kind of feeling. It could be disastrous but there’s also a very strange beauty in the idea that it could all go wrong at any point. He nailed it, absolutely nailed it. I was there for a few days to do some extra tracking and to mix with him. As much as I handed something over, I was still there, ’cause I care so much about it.”
Some of the mixes on Phase proved troublesome, however, with the jerky-beated and anthemic ‘Breathe Life’ the most perplexing for Garratt to finish. “I probably mixed and remixed it 15 or 16 times,” he laughs. “And we’re talking crunch time... we’re talking delivery the next day kind of thing, ’cause that was a single. As soon as we decided it was gonna be a single, we sent it off to Mike, ’cause he has this ability to just take a song and make it feel so worthy of radio but also worthy of the Internet and blog world. He has this way of being able to take a song and just give it to both of those worlds, in a way where both of those worlds can take it seriously. But Mike rang and went, ‘Look, it’s nearly there and I don’t think I can really do anything more to it.’ Which was really lovely to hear, because I was terrified!”
As far as the future is concerned, the fast-rising Jack Garratt is already looking to the types of sounds and styles he wants to explore on his next album, likely using more live audio-based jam recordings subsequently edited down. “I’m listening to a lot of modern contemporary electronic jazz,” he says. “Listening to beatmakers really: a lot of Madlib and J Dilla and Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s new record [untitled unmastered].
“This past record has been taking digital sounds and presenting them in a more real-life way,” concludes Garratt, a man with a plan. “My next interest is taking real-life things and presenting them in a more digital way.”
Jack Garratt is a big believer in the idea that you need to spend a lot of mixing time listening on consumer playback systems, and in his own studio, flips back and forth between Focal Twins and a pair of Beats headphones. “But what does everyone listen to music on?” he argues. “I still reference on them, ’cause if you can get mids to sound good on those headphones, if you can get the high ends to pop but not kill you, and if you can get the bass to control itself, you’ve got a good mix.
“The best way to mix is on terrible speakers, because no-one is gonna be listening to my album on a pair of Focal Twins, or a pair of Yamaha NS10s. They’re gonna be listening to it on shitty car speakers, or great car speakers with way too much sub, or laptops, or white beady headphones or something like Beats. I listen to music on all of those things. And if I can make it sound good on all of them, then surely it’s a good mix.”
Although Jack Garratt’s guitar playing features heavily in his live show, there’s actually very little of it on Phase. “I rarely play guitar on my records just because I’ve not been able to do it right yet,” he confesses. “I’ve done it in ‘Surprise Yourself’, and ‘Weathered’ and ‘Water’, because I found the right sounds. One of the things I need to really, really focus in on is microphone knowledge and microphone positioning and broadening my understanding of audio recording, because a lot of the guitars that I do record, I do in the box. But that’s only because I don’t know how to make it sound great out of the box.
“Live is a totally different thing. I would never punch my guitar into a laptop to get the right tone. I’m a Strat man, and I have the [Orange] Rockerverb MkIII amp. I’m much happier having maybe not exactly the right tone, but a real-life, responsive sound from my guitar.”